Daily News Analysis

Internet from the skies

8th June, 2021 Science and Technology

GS PAPER III: Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.

Context: OneWeb a global communications company that aims to deliver broadband satellite Internet around the world through its fleet of LEO satellites.

  • OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation reached 218 in-orbit satellites.
  • The company only has one more launch to complete before it obtains the capacity to enable its ‘Five to 50’ service of offering internet connectivity to all regions north of 50 degrees latitude.
  • The Five to 50 service is expected to be switched on by June 2021 with global services powered by 648 satellites available in 2022.

LEO technology

  • LEO satellites have been orbiting the planet since the 1990s, providing companies and individuals with various communication services.
  • LEO satellites are positioned around 500km-2000km from earth, compared to stationary orbit satellites which are approximately 36,000km away.
  • Latency, or the time needed for data to be sent and received, is contingent on proximity.
  • As LEO satellites orbit closer to the earth, they are able to provide stronger signals and faster speeds than traditional fixed-satellite systems.
  • Additionally, because signals travel faster through space than through fibre-optic cables, they also have the potential to rival if not exceed existing ground-based networks.
  • However, LEO satellites travel at a speed of 27,000 kph and complete a full circuit of the planet in 90-120 minutes.
  • As a result, individual satellites can only make direct contact with a land transmitter for a short period of time thus requiring massive LEO satellite fleets and consequently, a significant capital investment.
  • Due to these costs, of the three mediums of Internet – fibre, spectrum and satellite – the latter is the most expensive.
  • LEO satellite broadband is only preferable in areas that cannot be reached by fibre and spectrum services.
  • Other companies have also ventured into this market, including tech heavyweights Google and Facebook. The former launched its ‘Loon’ project in 2013, using high-altitude balloons to create an aerial wireless network.
  • After testing the service in rural Kenya, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, abandoned the project in 2021.

Criticisms of LEO satellites

  • Today, 1,250 satellites launched annually this decade, with 70% of them for commercial purposes. As a result, there are questions related to who regulates these companies, especially given the myriad of nations that contribute to individual projects.
  • These companies has to receive requisite licences to operate in each country, including, in most cases, from the country’s telecommunications sector and department of space.
  • All those considerations make for a complicated regulatory framework and that’s before going into the question of who dictates activities in space.
  • There are logistical challenges with launching thousands of satellites into space as well.
  • Satellites can sometimes be seen in the night skies which creates difficulties for astronomers as the satellites reflect sunlight to earth, leaving streaks across images.
  • Satellites travelling at a lower orbit can also interrupt the frequency of those orbiting above them, an accusation that has been levelled against Starlink satellites already.
  • Another worry is that there are already almost 1 million objects larger than 1cm in diameter in orbit, a byproduct of decades of space activities. Those objects, colloquially referred to as ‘space junk,’ have the potential to damage spacecrafts or collide with other satellites.